Rapprochement dictated by shared interests

The Horn of Africa is of paramount importance to the Arab world, and special effort should be made to revitalize relations, experts told the opening day of a conference hosted by the Doha Institute on Sunday, November 27.

Numerous scholars and researchers are taking part in the event, titled "The Arabs and the Horn of Africa: the dialectic of proximity and identity" and organized by the Institute's Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), with speakers emphasizing the gains to be had by forming and maintaining new partnerships on a variety of levels. 

Speakers stressed the scale of benefits that could be achieved by both Arab and Horn of Africa states by rectifying the deformities afflicting their relationships due to the legacy of historical and political factors, including the interference of great Western powers in the region.

During the opening session, Dr. Abdulwahab al-Qassab, Associate Researcher and Director of the Strategic Aspects Program at the ACRPS, explained that the Center took the initiative to organize the three-day conference in order to fill a gap caused by a lack of Arab research interest in the Horn of Africa region - despite the latter's significant geographic location and close proximity to the Arab world, not to mention the historical dimension of relations between the two sides. He added that the proceedings were part of a series of events organized by the Center since its founding in December 2010 in order to address relations between the Arab world and its regional surroundings - beginning with the conference on the Arabs and Iran, followed by the Arabs and Turkey, and, today, the Arabs and the Horn of Africa. Dr. al-Qassab then gave the floor to Dr. al-Nour Hamad, one of the participants in the organization of the conference.

Reassessing the vitality of relations

In his address, which inaugurated the activities of the conference, Dr. Hamad - Chair of the Technical Education Department at the University of Qatar - placed great value on the initiative of the ACRPS in organizing the conference. Dr. Hamad thanked the organizers and participants, noting the efforts made to gather an impressive number of scholars and specialists from various intellectual schools and academic disciplines. He also described the holding of the conference as a precedent-setter and as heralding a new phase in the study of the various aspects of the relationship between the Horn of Africa and the Arabs.

Dr. Hamad noted that the importance of the conference emanated from its subject matter, given the deep historical links between the Arab world and the Horn of Africa region. The value of the event was magnified, he said, because the Horn has not received its fair share of attention in Arab academic literature.  And just as the Horn of Africa is important for the Arabs, the Arab world is similarly vital for the countries of the Horn of Africa - and for the same reasons of proximity, history, and shared interests.

Dr. Hamad added that this topic was doubly significant given the current state of world affairs, headed by events in the Arab world known as "the Arab Spring"; examining relations between the Arab world and the Horn of Africa occupied an even more important place in the context of ongoing changes in the Arab world, he explained.

Dr. Hamad also noted that the relationship between the Arab world and the Horn of Africa involves both proximity and distance, pointing to the fact that three Horn countries (Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti) are full members of the Arab League, while the others have ceremonial representation in the League's activities.

Dr. Hamad also emphasized that given the geostrategic location of the Horn, which has led some to dub it "the navel of the world", the region's importance explained itself. He recalled that the Horn of Africa had been an arena of competition and struggle among major world powers since the 15th and 16th centuries (beginning with the Portuguese presence) due the position along the Red Sea, a vital strategic location by any definition. This competition has contributed to making the Horn of Africa - until the present day - a politically unstable region, frequently plagued by proxy wars and devastating famines.

Aside from geography, Dr. Hamad discussed the historical dimension of relations between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa and their mutual interaction over centuries. This interaction was not limited to the Arab-Islamic expansion in the Horn, but also worked in the opposite direction, and took place during periods that go further back in history. For instance, the Ethiopians ruled over Yemen and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula during the pre-Islamic period, and history has recorded intense migration from Yemen to Ethiopia upon the collapse of the Ma'rib Dam, leading to intermixing between the two sides.

The speaker warned that short-term political calculations could cloud the bigger picture of overall ties between the Arab world and the Horn of Africa, stressing the need to build a broader vision for relations between the two regions. He added that this broader vision called for a linking of immediate political realities to the larger civilizational project, for exclusive reliance on analyzing political interests "one day at a time" cannot help to elucidate the nature of relations between the two sides, and would limit us to the field of conflict and the waste of national resources.

Dr. Hamad stressed that the stereotypes constructed in Arab imagery regarding the peoples of the Horn of Africa should be discarded, just as the people of the Horn should abandon the stereotypes they employ in perceiving the Arab world - a theme scheduled for discussion during the proceedings.

Dr. Hamad also emphasized the diversity that dominates the Horn of Africa, the fact that managing this diversity is essential to rectifying relations between the Horn and the Arabs, and the need to accept tolerance as a starting point.  As an example of the repercussions of failing to manage diversity, Dr. Hamad spoke of the Sudanese case, which ended with the secession of South Sudan. He also spoke of the need reconsider the two mainstream Arab discourses, nationalism and Islamism, since they prevent management of the existing diversities in both the Arab states and their neighboring regions. He added in this regard: "I believe that what unites us is not language or religion, but, rather, our perspective and assessment of the major issues."

Historical interactions, as well as setbacks

The scheduled proceedings began with a session on the historical axis in the relationship between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa. The session was chaired by Dr. Sayyar al-Jamil, head of the Research Unit at the ACRPS, who proposed that the historical dimension was an essential doorway to understanding the relationship between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa. He added  that the edification of a realistic academic perspective on this shared history was an indispensable condition for the revival and enhancement of this relationship, in the service of the interests of both sides. He also acknowledged that the history of the relationship had known periods of harmony and positive interaction, as well as phases of conflict and struggle between the two sides.

The first presentation was by Dr. Yusuf Fadl, chair of the Turkish Studies Unit at the University of Khartoum who spoke on "aspects of the historic links between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, from the dawn of history and until the 19th century."  Dr. Fadl noted that these relations are ancient, dating back more than 2,000 years, and that human interaction between both sides took several levels: social, cultural, and economic. He discussed the most notable interactions throughout history, including human migrations, commercial links, and religious influences - especially the spread of Islam and Muslim-Christian competition in the region - as well as the impact of Portuguese expansion and modern capitalist relations on interactions between the two regions. He ended by stating that the deep legacy of relations between the two regions was reflected in the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural resemblances between the African Cushitic-speaking peoples and the peoples that speak Semitic languages, such as the Arabs.

In his presentation, Dr. Abdullah Ali Ibrahim - professor emeritus of African History and Islam at the University of Missouri - spoke of a dark episode in the history of relations between Arabs and the Horn of Africa. He affirmed that relations between the two regions knew long periods of peaceful exchange and coexistence, but were also marred by instances of rupture. The [MJS1] most recent of these cases was the massacre of Arabs in Zanzibar, due to the revolt of the Africans on January 10, 1964. A movement led by John Okello led to the overthrow of the Arab sultan of Zanzibar and acts of murder, arrest, rape, and expulsion against the Arabs of the island, in what could be described as "ethnic cleansing" in contemporary terms.

Dr. Ibrahim said the ethnic revolution was based on a racist African nationalist ideology that relied on inciting its African followers against "Arab enslavement". He said that Arab countries were not aware of these aspects at the time, and marketed the revolution as a Marxist revolt by the proletariat against the aristocracy. Early on, the Arab world was receptive of the revolt, with Gamal Abdel Nasser expressing support, while what really took place was a crime of ethnic cleansing, practiced against the Arabs by the followers of Okello.

Professor Ibrahim called for the documentation of this episode of Arab persecution in Zanzibar as part of rectifying relations between Arabs and Africans. He also referenced two films during his presentation, "Africa: the Blood and the Might" and "Goodbye Africa", which reproduced the events, in which Arabs were hunted down and killed based on their dress (dishdasha). He ended his presentation by saying that the most dramatic aspect of the predicament of Zanzibar was the imposition of Africanization in place of the mixed legacy, warning of the threat of racist ideologies that denied the civilizational interaction with Arabs and Indians, placing them on an equal footing with the Western colonist, which led to violence that struck the continent and bloodied its society.

International competition on the Horn of Africa

In his presentation during the first session of the conference, Dr. Hamad discussed the enduring effects of the expansionist campaigns of the Khedives during the 19th century, which were waged from Egypt toward the south: Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Dr. Hamad spoke of the latent feelings of suspicion and insecurity among the peoples of these countries toward Egypt due to the legacy of these campaigns. He also presented an objective critique of the behavior of the Egyptian politicians and elite, who approached such questions with a complete sense of entitlement and with a declared desire of acquisition. This approach led the Khedive institution in the 19th century to intervene in its southern neighborhood with the use of military power, which caused the failure of the Egyptian elites, over more than a century, to remedy the negative repercussions of the Khedive-Ottoman legacy.

Dr. Hamad asserted that organic relations based on a concept of partnership, and with an understanding of Sudan's specificity as a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural country, are of utmost necessity for the future of Sudan and Egypt. The call for the recognition of cultural pluralism, he added, is not directed only at the ruling Egyptian establishment and its elites, but also - and to a much greater extent - at the Sudanese government and its elites, both of whom perceive Sudan as a solely Islamic Arab country.

The presentations of the second session were devoted to the political and economic aspects of the relationship between the Arab world and the Horn of Africa. The session was led by Jamal Barout, a researcher at the ACRPS.

The first speaker was Professor Peter Woodward, who has worked as an adviser to several government and non-governmental organizations. Dr. Woodward's paper discussed the question of international competition in the Horn of Africa. He pointed out that the region can be seen as a conflict region on several levels: domestic, regional, and international. He presented examples of the conflicts that ravaged the Horn region, including internal strife, such as in Sudan and Somalia. Following the end of the Cold War, Dr. Woodward added, the theory of regional security - i.e., the notion that the national security of one nation depends on security in neighboring ones - dominated relations among the countries of the Horn. As a result, conflicts erupted among the region's states, such as the war between Ethiopia and Somalia, which began in 1977-1978 and whose repercussions continue to this day through Ethiopian interference in the Somali crisis. Ethiopia has also intervened in the civil war in Sudan by offering support to the rebels in the South. The Ethiopian-Eritrean War is also among the major conflicts afflicting the region.

As for the roles of the great powers in the Horn of Africa, Professor Woodward stated that the United States directly interfered in the region during the Cold War era, and maintained strong relations with Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie. On the other hand, the USSR also had a role in Somalia, and began knitting strong relations with Ethiopia when the United States decided to enter the Somali crisis in force. Within the same Cold War logic of exchanging positions, the USSR had also built a strong presence in Sudan before the country began gravitating toward the United States with the collapse of the rule of Jaafar al-Numairi.

What is beyond doubt, according to Professor Woodward, is that the two poles of the Cold War contributed to the escalation of conflicts in the Horn of Africa through their constant supply of arms to the combatants. After the Cold War, the United States gained the upper hand in the Horn and attempted to impose a comprehensive peace within it, but it has failed to do so. This was due to the American desire to impose a degree of hegemony over the region and to determine the nature of the compromises that would underpin the peace, which was resisted by the countries of the Horn. In the recent period, new actors have emerged in the Horn of Africa, headed by China, India, and Malaysia - through their economic and investment presence in the Horn countries. The US economic interests in the Horn of Africa now pale by comparison to Chinese interests, which has shifted the equation of international competition in the region.

On a different front, Irma Taddia, Professor of Modern African History at the University of Bologna, spoke of the repercussions of the emergence of new African states on the countries of the Horn of Africa. Dr. Taddia noted that the Horn of Africa has been described in recent years as one of the world's most unstable regions, with the little hope for the establishment of peace, the building of institutions, or the beginning of democratic transition.

Meanwhile, Professor Ijlal Ra'fat, Professor of African Studies at Cairo University, discussed the intersection between the national interests of the Arab states bordering the Red Sea and those of the states of the Horn of Africa. She noted that geographic proximity and international competition were a constant reminder for the Arab states of the geo-strategic importance of the Horn region and the threats that could spread from the region. As such, the Horn of Africa remains an important regional/international strategic crossroads, where interests intersect at times and collide at others.

Professor Ra'fat affirmed that the immediate domestic conditions within the Arab states represent a hurdle to both the project of the Arab economic conglomerate and the Arab economic venture into the Horn of Africa. She added that the sole effective actor in the Horn remains the international actor, which is reflected in the raging conflicts over international strategic interests.

Israel's race against the Arabs in the Horn of Africa

The conference's third session, headed by Dr. Hecham Karoui, Researcher at the ACRPS, was devoted to analysis of the political/economic aspect of the relationship between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa.

The presentation of Dr. Mahmoud Muhareb, Professor at the University of Jerusalem, discussed instances of Israeli interference in the Horn of Africa. He noted that Israel was able to establish diplomatic relations with the vast majority of African states in the first two decades of its existence; this was made possible by the priority Israel gave to relations with African states, as well as by Western sponsorship of Israeli activities in Africa. In the mid-1950s, Israel embarked on the building of close relations with Ethiopia on a platform of shared interests. These relations received their impetus from the Israel's "strategy of the periphery", which was meant to encircle Egypt and abort its project of Arab national unification led by Nasser. Dr. Muharib noted that Israel was among the first states to establish diplomatic relations with Eritrea, and these relations were given a high priority by Israel following Eritrea's independence. In order to achieve its regional objectives, Israel has exerted great efforts in recent decades to establish both overt and covert relations with the states of the Horn of Africa.

Dr. Amani al-Tawil, Director of the African Unit at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, lectured on Israeli strategic objectives in the Horn of Africa. She highlighted the key characteristics of the Horn's strategic position, bordering the Indian Ocean on one side, and controlling the southern entrance to the Red Sea (the Bab al-Mandeb Strait) on the other, which gives the region a dominant position vis-à-vis global trade routes, especially the shipping of crude oil originating in the Gulf and destined for Europe and the United States. The Horn is also a vital passage for any military movements arriving from Europe and the United States toward the Gulf region.

Dr. al-Tawil argued that Israel's nature, as a state existing in a hostile environment and relying on settlement as a tool for expansion, coalesced with geo-strategic features of the Horn of Africa to produce the Israeli policy in the region. Israeli strategic objectives were decided based on a number of factors: degrading and diverting Arab resources in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict; supporting the necessities of Israeli water security, which is essential to the state and its expansion; the freedom of Israeli navigation in the Red Sea as an element of Israeli security; enhancing diplomatic relations with the states of the Horn since they represent a voting bloc within the African bloc, which is now composed of 54 UN members; and, finally, combating the forces of political Islam, which oppose Israel from an ideological perspective and view the Arab-Israeli conflict as an existential conflict, not merely one over borders.

The third session ended with a presentation of Dr. Azhar al-Gharbawi, Professor of International Relations at the University of Baghdad, who analyzed the Kenyan case as one of Israeli infiltration of the Horn of Africa states. Israel, he said, now has clear plans to infiltrate the countries of the Horn in order to achieve its various goals, an approach stemming from the strategic, economic, security, and geo-strategic importance of the Horn region. Thus, Israel's entry into the African continent reflects a planned strategic vision that involves expansion in East Africa and the Great Lakes region - with the aim of achieving the demands of Israeli security.

She affirmed that Israel's ambitions in the Horn of Africa go back to the first recorded statement of Ben Gurion, in 1933, when he declared: "Aqaba, and the historic location of Eilat - Umm al-Rashrash - allow us to position ourselves in the Gulf, Aqaba, and the Red Sea." Israel, Dr. Gharbawi predicted, will attempt the greatest possible degree of influence and expansion, especially in the absence of clear Arab policies regarding the security of the Red Sea, and given Eritrea's gravitation away from the Arab orbit since its independence in 1993. In light of the peace settlement that was reached, Israel will guarantee that its security demands related to the Red Sea will be met. Based on that, Israel will do its best to achieve its hegemonic and expansionist objectives.

At the end of the first day of the conference, Dr. Woodward presented a general lecture that touched on several issues relating to African affairs, international competition in the region, and the position of the Arab world regarding these events.

The conference continues for three days, with the second day's sessions discussing the political, economic, strategic, and security facets of the relationship between the Arabs and the Horn of Africa, in addition to the intellectual, cultural, and social axis. The third day will be devoted to the interaction of the Arab media with the causes of the Horn of Africa before the closing of the conference with a roundtable discussion.